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The Road to Jerusalem

Ben-Gurion Airport is located in the town of Lod (also known by its Greek name, Lydda), an ancient city dating to the time of the Canaanites. It was an exclusively Jewish town at the time of the Maccabees, but the inhabitants were all sold into slavery in 43 B.C.E.  Much later, it became a home of the Crusaders. The remains of the 12th century church they built is now part of the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George.

When you leave Ben-Gurion Airport and head out on the road to Jerusalem, hopefully the adrenalin rush of finally reaching Israel will help you overcome jet lag. Tempting as it may be to sleep, you don't want to miss the scenery along the road.

One of the things that might strike you here and elsewhere in the country is how sparsely populated it is. Reading the newspaper and watching the news often gives the impression that the country is overflowing with people, but, even with a population of more than six million now, there's plenty of room for growth.

Besides some beautiful scenery as you approach Jerusalem, you might notice some monuments along the road and old, rusted military vehicles. These are reminders of the battles that took place along the Tel-Aviv-Jerusalem corridor during Israel's fight for independence in 1948. Before the Arab states invaded on May 15, irregular forces were blockading the route, making it difficult and, at times, impossible to bring supplies to the Jews living in Jerusalem.


Memorial at Kiryat Anavim to the fallen of Harel Palmach Brigade, who opened the road to Jerusalem (GPO Photo)

The Israeli paramilitary forces that preceded the founding of the Israel Defense Forces, the Haganah, Irgun and Lehi, battled Arab villagers and soldiers who infiltrated across the porous borders of Palestine after the United Nations partition decision to create a Jewish and an Arab state in Palestine. While the Jews accepted the decision, the Arabs did not, and almost immediately launched violent attacks to prevent the UN decision from being implemented.

It became vital for the Jewish forces to capture some of these Arab towns to keep the road open. On April 9, during one such battle, a combined force of Lehi and Irgun fighters attacked the village of Deir Yassin in one of the most notorious and misrepresented confrontations in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

After the Arab invasion and the war began in earnest, the situation in Jerusalem became even more bleak. An American soldier then played a key role in the battle for the roads. Michael Stone, better known as Mickey Marcus, was the one who decided it was necessary to construct the "Burma Road" (named for the road paved by the Allies from Burma to China during World War II), a make-shift winding path through the seemingly unpassable mountains around Jerusalem that bypassed the main road. This allowed the Jewish forces to relieve the Arab siege on June 9, just days before the United Nations negotiated a cease-fire. Had the convoys not gotten through, the Jews remaining in Jerusalem would have starved or been forced to surrender. For this courageous act and other contributions to the defense of Israel, David Ben-Gurion named Marcus a general, making him the first general in the army of Israel in nearly two thousand years (for a Hollywood version of the story, rent Cast a Giant Shadow, starring Kirk Douglas as Marcus and co-starring John Wayne, Frank Sinatra and Yul Brynner).


Memorial for those who fell in the battles for the road to Jerusalem (GPO Photo)

The road provided relief to the beleaguered Jews in Jerusalem for nearly five months, until December 1948, when the road connecting the Nachshon and Shimshon Junctions was opened. The road has been restored and is now marked with signs indicating places of historic significance.

The road that is now the principal artery between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem was completed around the time that Anwar Sadat made his momentous visit to Israel, which paved the way [forgive the pun] for the peace treaty with Egypt. The road was not yet open to the public, but was used to transport Sadat for security reasons.

Latrun

Along the road to Jerusalem, near the junction to the main artery south, is Latrun, the site of many famous military battles. Here, Joshua commanded the sun to stand still and the Maccabees, Romans, Crusaders, Arabs and British marched through here on the way to Jerusalem. In Israel's War for Independence, some of the fiercest fighting of the war took place at Latrun. From 1948 to 1967, the Israelis were unable to gain control of the road and had to build a detour to circumvent the Arab legion. Known as no-man’s land, the UN had to supervise this area of land, until it was retaken by Israel in 1967.

Anyone who ever liked playing with soldiers and tanks as a kid, or still finds military hardware and strategy of interest, will love the Museum of the Israel Defense Forces Armored Division. The museum has a memorial to the brigade that fought here and more than 100 tanks used in Israel’s wars are displayed. You can climb on some of the earliest tanks made and compare them to ultra-modern versions built by Israel’s own military-industrial complex and those imported from the United States.


Latrun Tank Museum

Ideal especially for younger kids is nearby Mini Israel, a park where you can tour a miniaturized version of the major landmarks in Israel.

The Latrun Monastery, which was founded in 1890 by a group of Trappist monks from France, is across from the tank museum. Damaged in World War I, the monastery was restored and rebuilt in 1927. The monks have taken a vow of silence, but those selling wine grown from the local vineyards to tourists are given a special dispensation to speak.

Another interesting site is the remains of a 12th century Crusader fortress, Le Toron des Chevaliers. Saladin wrecked the fortress on his march to stop Richard the Lion-Heart from advancing into Jerusalem. Next to the Crusader fort is an abandoned British police station, which was held by the Arabs in the 1948 war and later used by the Jordanians.Roughly half-way between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv is the Neot Kedumim Biblical Landscape Reserve. With more than 600 acres, this beautiful expanse is a living museum in which every plant mentioned in the Bible and Talmud can be found growing. Trails devoted to different sections of the Bible — The Forest of Milk and Honey, the Dale of the Song of Songs, Isaiah's Vineyard — are designed to bring the ancient texts to life.

Castel

The site of a key battle in the 1948 war is Castel, which is atop a mountain 2,600 feet high along the road to Jerusalem, about 6 miles outside the city. The city is named for a fortress built in Roman times. During the mandate period, an Arab village occupied this strategic high ground and the Haganah decided in early 1948 it was necessary to take the hilltop to keep open the road to Jerusalem. After a fierce battle, the village was conquered on April 9. Today, the site has a model of the battles.

Bet Shemesh

Just off the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway is Bet Shemesh, a historic town that dates back to the third century B.C.E. The city is mentioned numerous times in the Bible, including I Samuel 5, when it is the site of the recovery of the Ark of the Covenant from the Philistines. Recent archeological findings indicate that settlement continued throughout the Temple and Roman periods. The modern town was originally founded as a farm by Bulgarian immigrants in 1895, and was later the scene of heavy fighting during the War of Independence. Today, the primarily Orthodox town is home to some 21,000 inhabitants, many of them immigrants from North America and England.

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